The Rough fire burning in Kings Canyon near Hume Lake surged to 30,900 acres Wednesday and more than 2,500 campers, hikers, employees and residents were forced to leave the area, officials said.
By late afternoon, the blaze was just 3 percent contained, and extremely smoky conditions in the jagged, rocky terrain limited aerial firefighting efforts, said National Park Service fire information officer Mike Theune.
Theune said that fire trucks used to combat city fires are positioned around the Hume Lake Christian Camps and surrounding cabins. Hand crews and bulldozers were placed around the massive blaze, and helicopters continue to drop water from the lake and other sources on the fire.
“We’re throwing everything we can at it,” he said.
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Theune did not know just how much of Hume Lake has been drained during the firefight, but he said each helicopter pulls 2,000 gallons out per trip. The aircraft have been making regular trips since late last week.
The Rough fire has escalated to the highest planning level nationwide, Theune said, meaning it is one of the largest concerns for the entire National Park Service.
Early Wednesday evening, evacuation warning notices were issued by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office for mountain-cabin areas northeast of Dunlap. The warning pertained to Crabtree, Sampson Flat, Davis Flat and Clover Meadows, and was for both permanent residents and visitors. The warning meant that residents needed to be prepared to evacuate should such an order be given.
The California Highway Patrol has closed Highway 180 just north of Grant Tree Road, but the General Grant Tree and the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park remain open.
A total of 1,141 firefighters, consisting of 23 crews, 27 engines and five helicopters, are fighting the blaze, which started with a lightning strike on July 31.
On its Facebook page, staff of Hume Lake Christian Camps posted the following message at midday: “The Rough Fire has grown to 30,900 acres. We are now in the path of the fire. Today is absolutely critical. Hundreds of firefighters are on site, with numerous fire assets on the ground and in the air. Please mobilize the Christian community around the world to pray. God is good. Thanks for praying.”
And this message was posted to the camp’s website: “All non-essential personnel have been evacuated successfully. About 60 full-time staff remain to help keep our utilities, kitchen, office, and other infrastructure running for fire’s Command Post and the many firefighters staying at Hume. Although the fire has advanced some, the presence of the fire Command Post, as well as the many firefighters staying with us, helps to remind us that we are very well protected right now. Please keep us and the firefighters in your prayers.”
Theune praised the 2,500 campers, cabin residents and Hume Lake Christian Camps employees for their planning and anticipation.
“We got them all out within two hours,” Theune said. “The quicker people can be ready to go, the quicker we can turn our resources back towards fighting the fire.”
Because camp was not in session and virtually all of those staying in cabins or campgrounds have permanent residences elsewhere, Theune said, no shelter was needed to house those evacuated. Most of them simply returned home, he added.
Camp nearly empty
Past the highway closure, the road to Hume Lake was hazy and empty Wednesday afternoon. The odd fire truck cut through the smoke, which thickened the closer one got to the lake. A dark cloud covered the mountainside – only the helicopters dropping water and the DC-10 jet dropping fire retardant were visible.
Hume Lake Christian Camps, which was bustling with more than 1,000 children last week, was sparsely populated with firefighters and utility workers. A squad of yellow fire engines from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services was at the front of the camp snack shop. Several SUVs from various fire departments across California lined the parking stalls outside the gift shop.
But for the most part, the camp was empty. Its swimming pool and beach volleyball court were still and covered in a light blanket of smoke. The massive Ponderosa Lodge, which overlooks Hume Lake and faces the Rough fire, had only a few Caltrans workers and firefighters standing on its lawn.
Guest relations manager Bill Carroll was among the camp employees still on site. About 100 other staff members were evacuated in the last 24 hours. The 200 people renting cabins on the camp’s property also left.
The empty camp was a surreal experience for Carroll, who saw it filled with 1,800 campers on Friday. Several short-term camps were canceled this week. A men’s group of nearly 700 is scheduled to visit the camp next week, but that trip may be canceled if the fire continues, Carroll said.
He was optimistic Wednesday afternoon that the camp would escape unscathed. He said flames were still three miles away from the camp, and he was grateful for the firefighting resources scattered throughout the grounds.
“It’s really a blessing that all of these firefighters are here to protect us,” Carroll said.
The camp’s 25 volunteer firefighters also stayed behind. The remaining 25 to 30 employees were busy cooking meals for the firefighters and managing the camp’s utilities to ensure showers, electricity and phone service for the more than 1,100 firefighters.
Camp employees will stay at their job – the camp is also where many of them live – until they are told to leave, Carroll said.
The threat to the camp was not unnoticed by church leaders in the Valley.
Doug Richardson, church chairman of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Clovis, was almost dispatched to help evacuate Hume Lake Christian Camps through his work as a sheriff’s deputy.
“I don’t think people realize how devastating it would be to the community” to lose Hume Lake Christian Camps, Richardson said. “There are literally thousands and thousands of people that go through there every year.”
Richardson said many people are concerned about the camp and that he’s seen lots of reminders on social media to pray for the camp’s safety.
Hal and Jan Thomas have camped in Cedar Grove, one of the first areas closed by the Rough fire, for 30 years. Jan said they were lucky to find a place to stay at Stony Creek Lodge in Kings Canyon National Park.
“We tried to go up there yesterday, but we couldn’t see anything,” Jan said. “The soot was so thick.”
This is the first time their annual camping trip has ever been interrupted by fire, Hal said.
Although Cedar Grove was evacuated of most visitors and workers days ago, about two dozen backpackers were gathered in the Cedar Grove lodge to weigh options for getting out.
Barry Lewis, National Park Service sub-district ranger for Cedar Grove, outlined possibilities, said photographer Steve German. Backpackers were hoping for evacuation by helicopter, but were told they might have to hike out about 25 miles over the Sierra via Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley near Independence.
Jan Huffman, who works at the registration desk at the Grant Grove Lodge just a mile away from the road closure, said a few dozen people called to cancel their reservations due to the fire. They were fully refunded due to the emergency, Huffman added.
However, the lodge was at 95 percent capacity. Many visitors from foreign countries are still roaming the grounds, and Huffman said that many of the clients who were staying in Cedar Grove, which was evacuated, moved over to the sister lodge at Grant Grove.
Huffman said a few of the campers evacuated from around Hume Lake also booked some of the lodge’s 89 rooms and cabins. Many evacuees also used the Grant Grove’s shower facilities, which are open to the public.
Isaac Renteria, who works at the Grant Grove gift shop, wasn’t too worried about the fire, even though he lives on site in an employee cabin. Renteria said more than 50 employees live seasonally and year-round in a small little community near the guest lodgings.
When asked why the fire, which burned less than 100 acres in its first week, grew so violently in the last 10 days, Theune pointed to environmental factors: drought-stricken trees and vegetation, hot temperatures and unpredictable wind.
But when pressed on why more wasn’t done to stop the fire while it was in its infancy, Theune said the fire was in an area of the forest that is virtually inaccessible.
“Our lead firefighters – captains, battalion chiefs and commanders – have decades of experience, and we rely on them to make the judgment calls on our firefighting tactics,” he said.
“This is some of the steepest terrain in the entire United States. It would have been extremely difficult to get even one crew to the fire when it started.”
Theune said firefighters were working on a plan to reach the fire when it started to explode outward.
Now, that plan is to focus containment efforts around the structures to the south of the blaze while also pushing it toward natural barriers – cliffs and exposed rock faces – to cut off its growth.
Theune said much of the fire’s area has little to no wildfire history. Some of this wilderness has not burned – either in a wildfire or a prescribed burn by the park or forest service – since fire record keeping began nearly 150 years ago.
When asked about the fire’s predicted pattern, Theune stated the facts.
“This fire is more than 30,000 acres and only 3 percent contained. We are doing our best to monitor weather patterns and prepare.”